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Draba Returns to the Sand Blow

The Draba Plant

It was a hot, muggy, and buggy last day of May, and we were out hunting for Draba.

If you’ve read A Sand County Almanac, then you’ve read the short essay about this tiny genus of flowers. Aldo Leopold eloquently declared Draba to be a humble, easily overlooked plant, “Altogether…of no importance.” So why were we searching for it so intensively?

Aldo Leopold first learned of Draba thanks to his son Carl. For a college botany class, Carl was collecting plant specimens from around the Shack property to make an herbarium. At a spot near the Shack called the Sand Blow, Carl came across a flower he didn’t recognize. He brought it back to his father for identification, but to Carl’s surprise, Aldo Leopold didn’t know what it was, either. They then worked together to identify the specimen as a member of the Draba genus, likely Draba reptans. When Carl Leopold recounted this story, he always expressed pride in introducing his father to the plant that would inspire one of his famous essays.

During the period of time in which Carl and Aldo Leopold found Draba, the family would have known the Sand Blow as an open sand prairie, sparsely populated by a few plant species that could handle the loose soil and wind exposure. Over the years, as the Leopold pine stands matured and other woody species moved in due to lack of fire disturbance, the Sand Blow became shadier and more crowded. Draba disappeared. In the spring of 2022, our foundation land stewardship crew began restoring the Sand Blow by removing nonnative species and opening up the canopy. Though there is still work to be done, the site can once again function as a sand prairie, and it is a window into the historic landscape that informed Aldo Leopold’s writing.

An aerial photo of the Shack property in 1937. The large white splotch towards the left of the photo is the Sand Blow.
An aerial photo of the Shack property in 1937. The large white splotch towards the left of the photo is the Sand Blow.

Due to that legacy, the Sand Blow restoration wouldn’t feel complete without the return of one of the stars of A Sand County Almanac. That is why Program Director Steve Swenson and I found ourselves fighting off mosquitos in search of a notoriously hard to find flower. Aldo Leopold wrote: “He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba… He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.” It was too dry on that May day to get muddy, but we did scour the sandy soil along the stretch of Wisconsin River behind the Shack. We encountered other mustard species, animal tracks, poison ivy, and a lively hognose snake before any Draba appeared.

Then, finally, a familiar outline against the sand: fuzzy purple-gray basal leaves, a cluster of thin stems, and a crown of seed pods already popping open. The entire plant was only about four inches tall. Now that we had our search image, the next Draba appeared quickly. We gathered a few individuals, but left enough for the riverside population to reseed itself. Then we trekked back to the other side of the Shack property where we hoped to return the plant.

Draba specimens collected near the Wisconsin River.
Draba specimens collected near the Wisconsin River.

I had the honor of sprinkling the tiny orange Draba seeds in the Sand Blow. We put a flag in the ground to mark the planting zone, took a few pictures, and then went back to our normal work days. It was an occasion fitting for Draba: a small job done quickly and well, just as Aldo Leopold described the function of the little flower. But it still felt momentous, both from a historical and ecological perspective. It was as if we were building a bridge between Aldo Leopold’s time and the present, between the days of the open sand prairie and our ongoing restoration. And it made me think about my earlier question: why go to the effort to return this seemingly inconsequential plant to a patch of sand hidden among the pines? The justification, it seems, may be found in the answer to the question: why include a flower that is “Altogether…of no importance” in a collection of poignant, philosophical, paradigm-shifting essays?

Program Associate Leah Bieniak sprinkling Draba seeds in the Sand Blow.
Program Associate Leah Bieniak sprinkling Draba seeds in the Sand Blow.

If I’ve learned anything from the writing of Aldo Leopold—and other authors focusing on our connection to the land—is that stature and beauty are hardly the only factors contributing to a species’ worth. Perhaps by including the essay “Draba” in his book, Aldo Leopold reminded us that even the most unassuming species plays a part in the ecosystem. By returning Draba to the Sand Blow, we honor both its ecological role and its place in A Sand County Almanac, no matter how small they may be.